“She knew that lemons are acidic, but she was shocked at how acerbic this lemon’s comments could be.”

What is the best definition of acerbic?

Check your answer!

Choice A - Sharply harsh or sarcastic in mood or expression
Choice B - Rotten or unpleasing to the taste or other senses
Choice C - Overly dramatic or attention-seeking in mannerisms
Choice D - Irritating to the skin, eyes, or body; or, emotionally irritating


Acerbic (adjective) – sharply harsh, sarcastic, or ironic in expression or mood; or, sour or bitter in taste

GRE pro tips:

Acerbic sounds like acidic, and both words are, in fact, derived from equivalent Latin roots: the roots acer, acid, and acri all mean “bitter, sour, or sharp.” So it makes sense that the word acerbic can be used to describe food that tastes acidic, or sharply bitter and sour. However, on the GRE, acerbic is more likely to be used to describe acidic (sharp or biting) moods, expressions, or tones.

Now, the word acerbic usually (but not always) takes on a fairly negative connotation. For instance, acerbic can describe personal attacks, comments, or critical reviews that are unduly bitter or sarcastic and have a caustic effect. On the other hand, it can be used to describe an “acerbic wit” – one that is sharp and sarcastic but nevertheless impressive or endearing. So, a person (or, perhaps, a work of writing) that is described as acerbic could be harsh, bitter, and quite unlikeable; or, they/it could be sharp and sarcastic, in a witty way (and so likeable, at least to some).

Example sentences:

“Unfortunately, the coach’s acerbic comments only served to make Ted less confident on the soccer field.”

“Some readers greatly enjoy his acerbic wit and repartee.”

“I couldn’t eat the lime; it was too acerbic.”